There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Suzhou (3), The Lingering Garden and City Gate: Part 5 of South East China

B had dropped us at our hotel after lunch yesterday with two instructions. 1) rest this afternoon and 2) we have a late start tomorrow so visit the West Garden Temple on your own before I arrive.

We had ignored 1) but this morning decided to take the short walk to the temple, as directed.

Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) in origin, the West Garden Temple was largely rebuilt in the 19th century after the violence of the Taiping Uprising. We entered along a tree lined avenue leading from the canal and paused to admire two towers, presumably drum and bell towers, though there was no information.

Small tower, West Garden Temple, Suzhou
From there we detoured into the famous Arhat Hall. Arhats are disciples of the Buddha who have reached or nearly reached enlightenment. The always come mob handed, but here, in a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Hall which survived the 19th century destruction, are 500 almost life size gilded statues, all different. Some carry artefacts or tools, others snakes or reptiles while several are reaching out for something. I presume all have stories, but they are unknown to me.

Arhats, West Garden Temple, Suzhou
The garden, beyond the main Buddha hall, surrounds Fangsheng Pond and its octagonal pavilion.

Fangsheng Pond, West Garden Temple, Suzhou
For over 400 years the pond has been home to a colony of Asian giant soft-shelled turtles. According to notices round the pond two of the original turtles, now the size of dining tables, still survive and may be glimpsed by the fortunate. I am sceptical that turtles live to be over 400 (though nobody actually knows) and even if they do, the ever-reliable(?!) Wikipedia claims one of them died in 2007 and the other has disappeared. As turtles only come to the surface to breath twice a day we gave up on all them, regardless of age, and photographed the statue beside the pond.

Turtle by Fangsheng Pond, West Garden Temple, Suzhou
But we should not have given up…one surfaced right in right in front of my camera. It was not ancient, nor the size of a table, but was impressive just the same.

A real turtle, Fangsheng Pond, West Garden Temple, Suzhou
We were back at our hotel by 10.30 when B arrived with a car and driver to take us all of 100m to the Lingering Garden.

The Lingering Garden was commissioned by Xu Taishi in 1593 as the East Garden, a counterpart to the West Garden we had just left. It was renamed Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan) in the 19th century as a pun on the name of an earlier owner Liu Su (in Chinese ‘liu’ (), lingering and ‘Liu’ (), a common surname, are different words with different symbols, so it is a pun rather than ‘named after’.)

At the Lingering Garden, Suzhou
The fortunes of the garden have fluctuated over the centuries. It has been destroyed and rebuilt, and endured periods of neglect, but now, along with the Humble Administrator’s Garden (see yesterday’s post) is considered one of the Four Great Gardens of China (the other two are in Beijing and Chengde).

Pavilion, Lingering Garden, Suzhou
The garden has everything you would expect in a Chinese garden, ornamental rocks…

Ornamental rocks, Lingering Garden, Suzhou
….and flowers,….

Lingering Garden, Suzhou

Lingering Garden, Suzhou
… and bonsai trees…

Bonzai trees, Lingering Garden, Suzhou
…and a miniature version of the Chinese landscapes....

Miniature Landscape, Lingering Garden, Suzhou

beloved of painters ancient and relatively modern - and more impressive than I M Pei’s installation in the Suzhou Museum (see yesterday’s post).
A real landscape painting: Cloud Circling the Mountains by Huang Junbi (1899-1991)
And, of course, there are pavilions,….

Another Pavilion, Lingering Garden, Suzhou
I am proud of my ability to tell Ming furniture (elegant and sinuous) from the chunkier and sometimes over-decorated Qing style (as above) but that apart the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden rather blend into one in my memory. Perhaps two major gardens was one too many – particularly in November – but would I have been happy to leave Suzhou with one of China’s ‘Four Great Gardens’ unvisited?

Tucked into the southwest corner of the old city with the moat on two sides is the Pan Men Scenic Area.

Inside the elaborate entrance we met Yuan Zhao. He was, we were told, the Indian monk who brought Buddhism to Suzhou and for whom the Ruiguang Pagoda was built. Neither his features nor his name (which appears on the plinth so I have made no error) are Indian and I can find no reference to him anywhere; Google knows dozens of Yuan Zhao’s, but not this one. The statue is modern, his bald pate polished by the greasy hands of several thousand tourists – I duly added my contribution.

Lynne and the shiny headed Yuan Zhao

The statue faces Ruiguang Ta (the Pagoda of Auspicious Light). Originally built around 250 by Sun Quan, King of Wu in the Three Kingdoms period, it was rebuilt in the late 10th century and again in the early 12th century and restored in 1879.  By 1978 it was a ruin and had become a playground for adventurous or perhaps disobedient children. It was then that a cache of treasures was found including the ‘Pearl Pillar’ we had seen in Suzhou Museum yesterday. The pagoda has since been restored yet again – or maybe completely rebuilt, the Chinese are unfazed by distinctions between restoration, rebuilding and outright fakery. Sadly there was no access to the inside.

Ruiguang Pagoda, Suzhou

Suzhou's city walls were demolished long ago in the name of progress. There are, I understand, no plans to rebuild them, as they have done at Datong, and maybe other places, but they have rebuilt several of the gates. Pan Men – and adjacent Wu Men - are the sole remaining originals, though the word ‘original’ must be used with care. The current structure dates from the mid-14th century at the end Yuan Dynasty (except for the tower which was added in 1986) while Suzhou’s first city wall was built in the ‘Spring and Autumn Period’ around 500BC.

Guard Tower, Pan Men, Suzhou

Pan Men is small beer compared with the massive Zhongua Men in Nanjing, here there is only one chamber in which unwelcome incomers can be trapped and slaughtered, but that was probably enough. Attackers could force their way through the wide(ish) gate below where I was standing to take the picture but that would only give them access to the courtyard with defenders lining the surrounding walls. Few, if any would survive to attack the smaller inner gate.

Pan Men, city gate, Suzhou

Wu Men, the water gate is adjacent, but there is little to see,….

Wu Men, the water gate, Suzhou

….though the Wu Men Bridge over the moat beside the entrance to the water gate canal is one of the finest bridges in Suzhou. The original bridge dates from the Northern Song Dynasty (960 - 1126) though it was extensively restored/rebuilt in 1870.

Wu Men Bridge over the city moat, Suzhou
The water gate is accessed through the small bridge at the side, through the currently closed metal gates.

It was now lunchtime and B suggested we drive into the centre and eat wonton at her favourite wonton restaurant. Central Suzhou is less frenetic than other Chinese city centres, here factories and the tower blocks dwellings of their workers form an outer ring while the centre is low rise and relatively peaceful.

We had two types of wonton, prawn which came in a soup and pork which sat in a puddle of sugared soy sauce - the citizens of Suzhou have a notoriously sweet tooth. Both were excellent though I struggled chasing the slippery parcels of meat and shellfish with my chopsticks. Lynne helpfully pointed out that even the locals struggle and most were eating with a spoon.

Lunch over, we made our way to the north of the city and the railways station which resembled an airport as Chinese stations tend to.

High speed train arrives at Suzhou Station

B had mentioned that many people commute from Suzhou to Shanghai as housing is much cheaper here. The high speed train took us to Shanghai in about half an hour, passing through a continuous built-up area. We stopped at Hongqiao Station adjacent to Hongqiao Airport, Shanghai's second airport - we landed there when we returned from Urumqi in 2010. Here the route swung south and 45 minutes later we arrived in Hangzhou, our next stop.

The Train travelled from Suzhou to Hangzhou via Shanghai

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